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Sheriff’s deputy defends taking photos of Kobe Bryant crash site

LA County Sheriff's Deputy Douglas Johnson said he had no regrets over taking some of the photographs that led to the scandal and lawsuit.

(CN) — A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy told the court he has no regrets over the photographs he took of human remains from the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.

"I know I didn't do anything wrong," Sheriff's Deputy Douglas Johnson testified in federal court on Friday.

Johnson was one of at least two first responders, along with an LA County Fire Captain, Brian Jordan, to take pictures of dead bodies at the crash site. Those photos, sent around to other law enforcement officials and shown to members of the public, are now at the center of a civil lawsuit filed by Kobe Bryant's surviving wife Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester, whose wife and daughter also died in the crash, against LA County.

Bryant and Chester say the gruesome crash site photos amount to an invasion of privacy, and that they remain "haunted" by the thought of the photos ever being made public (so far, they have not been).

Johnson was one of the first officers to arrive at the crash site, in a remote part of the Santa Monica Mountains, accessible only by hiking through dense brush. Johnson testified that another officer, Raul Versales, a friend of his who was at the command post, asked Johnson to "take photos of the entire scene" and to "document everything." Johnson testified that he took about 25 photographs of the scene, including the terrain, the parts of the obliterated helicopter and the human remains.

The latter, he said, was among the most gruesome thing he'd ever seen. He used his personal iPhone to photograph decapitated torsos, intestines, organs and other body parts strewn about. One of the body parts appeared to be that of a child. He said at the time he did not yet know that former basketball player Kobe Bryant was among the victims of the crash.

He then texted the photos to Versales, who is set to testify in the trial next week, and who has told investigators that he never asked Johnson to take any pictures.

Johnson testified that he then shared the crash site photos with a fire department supervisor who has yet to be identified. He then showed LACFD Captain Brian Jordan around the crash site and watched as Jordan photographed human remains.

"It was a common practice," Johnson said, referring to the practice of taking photos of deceased crash victims. "I just wanted to make sure I documented the scene as thoroughly as possible."

He said he'd taken photos of dead bodies or injured people at 25 to 50 accidents and crime scenes, and that he had received photos from such scenes about 20 times. When asked if it ever occurred to him that such behavior might be inappropriate or against regulations, he said no.

When he got home from the crash site, he said he deleted the photos in order to preserve the privacy of the victims' surviving relatives.

"Everything I obtained is all confidential," he said.

Johnson recently became embroiled in another scandal, when security camera footage emerged showing him kneeling on a handcuffed inmate's head for three minutes in 2021. U.S. District Judge John Walter ruled that Bryant's and Chesters' lawyers were not allowed to bring the incident up during his testimony.

A key issue in the trial is just how widespread the practice of taking photos of dead bodies really is, and whether or not it's done for legitimate investigative purposes — say, to document evidence — or for the law enforcement officials' own amusement. The plaintiffs argue the latter; LA County, the defendants in the case, argue the former.

Earlier in the day on Friday, the plaintiffs called Adam Bercovici, a former LAPD officer for more than 30 years, now a consultant and expert witness.

"The problem of taking photos of human remains, keeping them as scrapbooks, has been a problem for many years," Bercovici testified. He said the practice dates back more than 30 years to when officers used Polaroid cameras. "It went on throughout my career."

"A favorite was suicides," he added, "With brain matter exposed... the more graphic, the better." He said officers kept these photographs in scrapbooks, sometimes called "death books" or "ghoul books." He recalled seeing one such Polaroid in 1994, a close-up of the face of Nicole Brown Simpson, who had just been murdered, along with Ron Goldman.

When asked to explain the motive for such behavior, Bercovoci replied, "Police officers want something special to show their friends. Something that makes them feel special."

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has talked about the practice in numerous interviews with news media. The plaintiffs played a number of clips of Villanueva, who is scheduled to testify for the defense at the end of the trial, talking about "death books" and collections of bloody crime scene photos. "It's macabre, but some people do that," he said in one.

Bercovici blamed the practice on the lack of a clear policy governing crime scene photos taken on personal cellphones. He also said once taken, the photos shouldn't have been deleted, as they had become evidence.

The 10-day jury trial will resume Monday, when LACF Captain Brian Jordan is scheduled to testify, as well as Raul Versales and other deputies who were sent the disputed photographs.

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